Today in the Spirit: Proper 20A

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In our year-long meditation on the revelation of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, the church now moves us forward to a point just before our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. According to Matthew, coming out of Galilee for the last time into Judea, Jesus delivers to his disciples the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the assigned Gospel reading in Matthew 20:1-16. The theme of the parable is the avoidance of jealousy between Christian workers caused by comparing oneself to another. Jesus would have his disciples take their eyes off what is happening with ourselves and others and instead contemplate the generosity of the Father. 

The example of Jonah in the OT reading Jonah 3:10-4:11 is useful for bringing out the theme of the Gospel reading, as Jonah is stubbornly unwilling to submit himself to the compassionate actions of YHWH toward the Ninevites. The appointed Psalm 145 extols the goodness of the One God, which, as the song’s second half emphasizes, is an extension of his righteousness in all his ways and works. This week begins a series of four readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 1:21-27, Paul, in contrast to Jonah, who would rather die than see the Ninevites saved, declares his willingness to go on living in the world if it means he will remain and continue with [the saints in Philippi], for your progress and joy in the faith (25). Fittingly, the Collect calls the church to pray for “the most excellent gift of charity” to be poured into our hearts.

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The Collect

O Lord, you have taught us that without love, all our deeds are worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you; grant this for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Should I Not Pity Nineveh? (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (9-11).

The issues between YHWH and Jonah here are comparable to those between the landowner and the day laborers in the Gospel reading parable. The root problem in both is anger over perceived unfairness arising from the generosity of the one with power to decide what happens to one person (or group) and another. One difference is that Jonah, a pious man, knows full well God will act with compassion on Nineveh, while the day laborers are surprised by the landowner’s actions. Jonah fails to see the hypocrisy in his anger over the plant being destroyed and Nineveh being spared. We do well to rejoice over the compassion God has extended to others, the same as he has done with us.   

But Nineveh was not just a Gentile city but the capital of a marauding empire threatening the very existence of Israel. Devotionally, we find we need the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit, the nature of Jesus poured out onto us, to want what is best even for our enemies. Jonah would enjoy watching his enemies die. Jesus teaches: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

Today, Holy Spirit, show me those I have been secretly despising, whether out of jealousy or enmity. Reveal to me misplaced anger toward you for not administering “the justice” I insist they deserve.

All Who are Falling… and All Who Are Bowed Down (Psalm 145(1-13)14-21)

The Lord upholds all who are falling
    and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand;
    you satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and kind in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;
    he also hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord preserves all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
    and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever (14-21).

The value added devotionally in the use of Hebrew parallelism in the Psalms is not just in simple repetition but in nuance built on from parts one to two. There is most often a related but novel idea introduced in part two, which is clearly designed to open the worshipers’ eyes from wide to wider as we sing on. Consider the first verse in Psalm 145 quoted above: The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. YHWH upholds (holds from under) in part one, and he raises up (pulls up from over) in part two. Both when we are falling (or in trouble GNT) and when we are bowed down (dispirited because of trouble), God provides the help needed.

Meditating on the two parts of this verse together, we conclude it is prudent to remain in constant fellowship with God through good times and bad—whether at the top of a hole, on the way down, or at the bottom. So often, we operate on the strength of our own resources all the way up to the point we are unable to; only when we find ourselves struggling do we call on God. We miss so much refreshment and life-giving experience from above altogether by taking that tack on things. In one entry of The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis prays: “O Perpetual Light, transcending all sources of created light! Let the ragged lightning bolt from the sky search the nooks and crannies of my soul. Purify, glorify, clarify, vivify—with all Your powers–my spirit that it may cling to You with joyful hugs.”   

Today, dear Spirit, build me up with “David’s” insight to recognize you when I fall and at every point prior, and with à Kempis’ desire to allow you access to “all the nooks and crannies of my soul.” 

Worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:21-27)

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have (27-30).

Here, I do not understand why the lectionary should cut off this NT reading in mid-sentence at verse 27. If the focus should be on Paul’s attitude on life and death alone, stop at verse 26. But if we should also hear what Paul believes his personal perspective should mean for the life of the church, we need to read through to the end of the chapter.

One reason for pastors to exercise the option to extend the reading in this case is Paul’s repeated use of the word gospel in verses 27 and 28. Paul writes let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ (not just worthy of Christ) in verse 27, and striving side by side for the faith of the gospel in verse 28. In other places, Paul might use the phrase worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1:10), but in Philippians, Paul’s overall concern is the movement of God’s Good News in the world, including the crashing conflict it produces. The gospel of Christ creates dust in the spiritual air all around, and the saints causing the confusion must learn to cope with the confusion and tension produced, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake. We need to be devoted to Christ, yes, and as such, fitted with endurance to engage with conflict, just as Paul did in his partnership with Christ.

Today, in the Spirit, reading Paul’s full message here, register the apostle’s own perspective in joining the Good News movement and take his challenge to participate in the movement of Christ in fellowship with your local church, in your local community, and in global mission.

A Master of a House Who Went Out (Matthew 20:1-16)

[Jesus to his disciples]: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing” (1-6).

Much of the attention we give to this parable is on the dialogue in the last few verses, and appropriately so. However, the generosity of the master is on full display not only at the point of distributing wages in the evening but also during the earlier parts of the day when, as Jesus tells the story, he ventures out, again and again, to look for the workers. A detail that would not be lost on our Lord’s listeners in first-century Palestine is that it is the master himself, not a servant, who goes out early in the morning and throughout the day up to the eleventh hour

Devotionally, we do well to equate the whole picture of the master in the parable to God’s manner of relating to us. In some aspects of our walk with Jesus, we are what those who study technology call the “early adapters,” coming on board right away with the call of God and laboring long. In other areas, we wake up late yet are rewarded quickly with fruit beyond what our labor merits. At one point, we experience the surprise of being treated better than we deserve; at another, if we are honest, the resentment that comes with watching newcomers receiving the same rewards we enjoyed only after years of toil, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over (Luke 6:38). (We pastors are especially prone to looking to see what other pastors in the line ahead of us receive by way of church growth). 

Today, Holy Spirit, listening carefully to every part of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, let me recognize in your treatment of deserving and undeserving workers alike the same generosity you have shown me over time, putting jealousy to one side and rejoicing with wonder over who you are, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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